"I think we're seeing the re-appearance of class and caste. Michael Jackson's fame comes from a cultural period -- postmodern global consumerism -- when the distinction between high and low collapsed. When Pierre Bourdieu surveyed French cultural tastes in the 1960s, he found that blue collar and white collar workers had completely different cultures -- classical music for the brain workers, cheap pop for the hand workers. A few decades later, postmodern consumer culture had leveled that, at least superficially: now, people with college degrees spoke about Michael Jackson "intelligently", people from lower class backgrounds spoke about him "passionately". But everybody spoke about him. Now that postmodernism is coming to an end, and now that narrowcasting and social networking limit our encounters with "the class other", I think we'll see different classes embracing different cultures again. Things will settle back into the kind of cultural landscape Bourdieu described in "Distinction"."
Another way to put this is to say that the only kings to exist in the future will be actual blue-blood kings (since monarchy seems to show no sign of going away) rather than self-proclaimed meritocratic entertainment world kings whose pomp, though it might have annoyed some, was also a way to say "anybody, from any background, can become a king". Calling yourself "the king of pop" was therefore, in a sense, a statement about social mobility, and a deconstruction of the blood claims of the aristocracy.
Yesterday I happened to be reading a Guardian Media article about -- of all things -- Graham Norton, the camp BBC host. The article quoted BBC1 controller Jay Hunt calling a Norton show "popular with C2DE viewers who we traditionally struggle to bring to the channel". The journalist (Stuart Jeffries) added "I'm not actually sure what a C2DE viewer is".
Since I wasn't sure either, I looked the term up. The NRS social grade scale was devised in the 1930s and describes the British class system (except for aristocrats, mysteriously absent) in a coded way. The letters are assigned according to the occupation of the principal breadwinner of a household (ah, that's why the aristocrats aren't there!):
A = Upper Middle Class: Higher managerial, administrative or professional (doctor, solicitor, barrister, accountant, company director)
B = Middle Class: Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional (teacher, nurse, police officer, probation officer, librarian, middle manager)
C1 = Lower Middle Class: Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional (junior manager, student, clerical/office workers, supervisors)
C2 = Skilled Working Class: Skilled manual workers (foreman, agricultural worker, plumber, bricklayer)
D = Working Class: Semi and unskilled manual workers (manual workers, shop worker, fisherman, apprentices)
E = Those at the lowest levels of subsistence: Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners and others who depend on the state for their income (casual labourers, state pensioners)
These categories can still describe the British class system fairly well -- and are still widely used by media and marketing people, despite the advent of rival systems from potato graphics to Mosaic geodemographics. You can use the NRS system to say things like "80% of Auto Trader readers are made up of social grade bracket B, C1 and C2" or "87% of Society Guardian readers are social grade ABC1 and 86% are educated to degree level or higher", and advertisers will know exactly who they have lined up in their sights. There's a fairly strong link between your NRS ranking and your cultural consumption patterns: "57% of Independent readers are deemed A or B on the NRS social grade, while just 11% of Sun readers, 14% of Daily Mirror readers, and 29% of Daily Mail and Daily Express readers occupy these socio-economic spaces," for instance.
But there's been a shift in the actual spread of the British population across the grid. The balance between ABC1s (middle class, white collar, broadsheet-reading) and C2DEs (working class, blue collar, tabloid-reading) has altered. The majority of British people are now ABC1s, whereas in the 1970s the middle classes would have been outweighed by C2DEs. This has happened through what we might call the "internationalisation of labour"; Britain doesn't really manufacture any more, so its working class has, in a sense, been outsourced to China (picture millions of Chinese in flat caps pigeon-fancying, supporting United, and watching Benny Hill). So it isn't so much that class has disappeared as that it's been internationalised. You have to travel a long way to see the people who smelt your steel now. They've been "hidden on the far side of the world".
Another reason that class has become less visible even as it's become more determinant is social networking. The internet has allowed us to filter our contact with others to such an extent that we're seldom likely to encounter anyone who thinks or feels significantly differently online -- unless we consciously seek them out. And why would we do that? To "challenge our own values"? Because "it's good for us"?
But perhaps the ultimate class gap today is between people who are and people who aren't on the internet. If you have internet access, you're part of a 15% global elite. Don't expect to encounter the other 85% online, your highness. They ain't here.